For the past three weeks, residents and St. Petersburg city officials have been in a heated debate over a proposal by the city to purchase Grace Connection Church, 635 64th St. S., and turn the property, which sits on the border between St. Petersburg and Gulfport, into affordable housing.
A last-minute decision on Monday, May 13, by the church to sell to another, unnamed congregation for less than the city was offering flat-lined any remaining debate.
Only hours before a public informational meeting hosted by St. Petersburg city officials and Gulfport Vice Mayor Paul Ray, the church announced the final call.
“I was told their reasoning was due to outcry from the community,” Ray told the Gabber on Wednesday, May 15.
Originally, the cash-strapped church planned to sell to the city for $1.8 million, which was to be voted on at a St. Petersburg City Council meeting on Thursday, May 16. The city of St. Petersburg was reportedly planning to use funds from Penny-for-Pinellas monies set aside for such housing projects.
“I was not for or against the low-income housing, because we weren’t even sure if it was going to be affordable housing or senior housing,” Ray said. “All that was concrete was the $1.8 million.”
Not all city officials were as ambivalent about the surprise announcement.
Hours after the church released its decision, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman posted on Facebook: “We’re talking about housing for firefighters, teachers, nurses, your grandma and grandpa. This is a big priority in St. Pete.”
The church has not yet released what congregation will be purchasing the five-acre property, or the price of the agreement.
Grace Connection’s Pastor Tim Kelley told the Tampa Bay Times that it was a “handshake” agreement, but one that would also allow Grace Connection to continue to have a home on the property.
On April 23, at the first public meeting regarding the housing plan – a proposal to build up to 86 units on the property up to four stories tall – about 500 residents and congregation members attended for three hours to present their concerns to the city. While not all of the attendees were protesting the plan, many were visibly angry.
Those residents may rest easy knowing that the property will remain a church.
“Now that it’s all gone, we’ve all kind of been speculating [about the new buyer],” Ray said. “It has to be another congregation close by, looking for a permanent home.”